Ken Herman, columnist for the Austin American-Statesman, weighed in on Wendy Davis’ chances of winning the gubernatorial election in 2014, commenting also on the addition of Leticia Van de Putte to the ticket and spending most of the article describing her. There were two sentences that stuck out to me. One was an assessment of Wendy Davis: “So far, Davis has unimpressed some who’ve seen her up close. She’s not Ann Richards, but who is. And it’s early.” That’s not really an assessment. It’s an undocumented assertion, and on whose opinion is it based? The other involves what is necessary for Wendy and Leticia to win: “There’s little chance Van de Putte can win if Davis doesn’t. And there’s little chance Davis can win if Van de Putte doesn’t. Their success depends on getting more women and Hispanics to the polls. Both things are doable.”
Okay, it’s not just about women; it’s about women and Hispanics. But it’s more than just those two groups as I pointed out in the last post. Why don’t journalists who want to write about campaigns study the political science literature on campaigns? There’s no single group or small number of groups that are the magic bullet that allows a candidate to win an election. Campaigns are about identifying your supporters and getting them registered to vote and to the polls during early voting, if possible, or on Election Day.
How does political science literature suggest that a candidate and campaign accomplish those goals? Journalists should read Green and Gerber’s Get Out the Vote: How to Increase Voter Turnout, 2nd edition, (2008) and Sasha Issenberg’s The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns (2012). The evidence from both books is that campaigns matter, a point that many political scientists don’t make often enough.
Journalists should also interview political scientists who have experience with campaigns. In Austin, that means contacting Daron Shaw, professor of Government at The University of Texas. Issenberg points out that Shaw rejected the then prevalent political science claim that “campaigns don’t matter” as a graduate student. He demonstrated which campaign strategies and tactics matter and how they matter in Issenberg’s chapter 8 on the “eggheads,” as the four political scientists who Rick Perry employed during his 2006 gubernatorial campaign were called.
The problem, of course, is that journalists don’t think that the public is interested enough to read an article that discusses politics and political campaigns in detail; so superficial and meaningless assertions substitute for thoughtful and cogent analysis.